I’ve always liked the Huichol shaman Matsuwa’s comment about himself “standing before the mystery of the world, filled with awe.” It’s the word “awe” that tantalizes me. I think of awe as indeed a response to mystery, a kind of speechlessness. Awe creates a state of not knowing what to say, so we say nothing. But the silence does not indicate an absence of feeling or thought. It just means that no words can adequately describe the feelings or thoughts. Awe can be inspired by beauty or power, and sometimes by sheer size, such as mountains, the ocean, grand canyons, or enormous cumulus clouds. Often awe is produced by a combination of size, beauty, and power.
But I am reminded more and more that awe is also inspired by terror and dread. In fact, one of Webster’s definitions of awe is “the power to inspire dread.” As we watch a cyclone rip through Myanmar, monster tornadoes spin destruction through Oklahoma, and an earthquake erupt in central China (all these within a week), we stand in awe of the power of the Earth to shake us up, to unshape and reshape the landscape and human life. And, of course, terror created by humans instills awe also, as Donald Rumsfeld reminded us when he bragged that American fighter planes strafing the city of Baghdad would fill men, women, and children with “shock and awe.”
It’s a shaman’s job to stand in awe and help others stand in awe. So it means we look to shamans and other spiritual leaders to understand how to experience terror and dread, in addition to beauty and magnificence. But what can any spiritual leader say? If the experience of awe is basically one of speechlessness before power, beauty, or terror, there are no words. Maybe this is what Matsuwa was getting at. If the mystery of the world is truly a mystery, then we have no way to explain it, no words to describe it. Maybe this is because awe-inspiring events and conditions are soul events, touching us where words fail, and silence is the only response.
Each of us is involved in “soul-making,” as John Keats put it, whether we are shamans or not, whether we are spiritually attuned to our lives, or not. It’s been said that the soul moves toward knowledge. It has a natural desire to know. It also moves toward experience because experience is a source of knowledge. Spiritual leaders are supposed to help us “make our souls” and accompany us on our journeys toward and into experience, and also back from experience with knowledge that might become wisdom if we sift it, mine it, deepen it, and incorporate it into our lives. Ultimately I think our souls want wisdom. So awe leaves us in a strange state of suspension, somewhere between experience that is too large or terrible to comprehend and the inborn urge to make sense of it, to find meaning, to embrace it as wisdom.
Cyclones, earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and their frightening companions reduce us to a state of humility. They have more power than we can imagine, or that we can endure. They change our lives, bringing experiences that fill us with dread, suffering, incomprehension. They render us humble. They make us realize how small we are. Such events also energize another part of us that wants to embrace, know, and understand the meaning and the purposes behind power and beauty, even terror—a part of us that may even yearn to become the awe-inspiring experiences because that is the only way, without words, to ultimately know them.
Humility may be a characteristic that is indigenous to the soul. If so, I think it does not reside happily in the “small soul,” that part of our souls that animates the ego and ordinary consciousness. This may sound like a contradiction at first because we would think that our small soul would–or should–feel humble. But we all know that this small soul can appear quite the opposite of humility as it feeds on what feeds the ego and creates delusions of grandeur. It tries to convince us that our ego, mind, and ordinary consciousness are all that is really important. Maybe this need for feeling important is why the small soul cannot readily abide in humility.
I like to think my “greater soul” is the part of me that is free of the ego, body, and the small mind of the small self. This is the part that blows with the wind across the sea, soars with hawks, sprouts green in the springtime, tumbles with water falling over stones down the hillside, has some kind of kinship with cyclones and avalanches. This part of the soul, according to Hildegard of Bingen, stretches to the ends of the Earth. It knows no boundaries or fixed forms and shapes; this part of the soul can be reformed and reshaped. And since it has no really fixed center, it can rest in humility, a state of just being, of just watching the beauty, power, mystery, and even terror with which it co-inhabits the universe. I imagine the soul needs this state of humility if it really yearns for knowledge, experience, and ultimately wisdom because humility can be like a portal into the unknown. The small soul can be content and satisfied to figure out what I am and how to be me, and maybe even proud to just keep on being me. In a sense, “I” am the entire universe for the small soul.
But the greater soul realizes in its humility that there is much more to the universe than just me. The greater soul longs to figure out and know the entire universe. And, since it is not trapped in being only me, it may yearn to become the universe. This may sound grandiose, but it takes humility to be taught how to stretch beyond the human.
Perhaps the moments we stand in awe before terrible destruction or even breath-taking beauty are hard on us because our egos are speechless. And when we have no words for something, we can feel as if we don’t really know it. But the soul wants to know, needs to know, has a great yearning to know. And it yearns to become, to be made. Made into what? Maybe everything. But our small souls can only take one day at a time, one sunset at a time, one waterfall, one birth, one cyclone, maybe only one death at a time. And maybe that’s why a large number of deaths seems unimaginable, unknowable, and meaningless. At some point death or even beauty is too much to comprehend for the small soul.
The mystery of the world contains both beauty and horror. Before them we stand in awe, speechless, not knowing what we feel, maybe not knowing who or what we are. Or maybe it’s that we don’t know who or what we will become in the presence of such beauty or such power. In any event, we are humbled by the mystery around us. And something in that mysterious beauty or power pulls us. Something there feels like it is already part of us, or about to become part of us, or merely yearning to be part of us. Something there calls to us, “Connect. Connect.”